PCDForum Paradigm Warrior Profile #5 Release Date December 26, 1996

Interview with Walden Bello, by David C. Korten

Walden Bello, researcher, policy analyst, and citizen activist, has made a major contribution to dispelling the myths of the Asian Tiger economies by documenting the political, social, and environmental realities of their “successes.”. His current interests center on raising awareness of the negative impacts of export oriented industrialization in Thailand and building the capacity of civil society organizations to take the lead in defining new approaches to military security and economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. Walden presently co-directs Focus on the Global South, a development policy institution based in Bangkok, and serves as professor of sociology and public administration at the University of Philippines. In addition to commuting between Thailand and the Philippines, he also travels extensively to speak at international forums and to serve on the boards of Oxfam America, Green Peace International, and other organiza tions. He previously served as executive director of the prestigious Food First Institute in San Francisco.

Korten: Isn’t it unusual focus for a policy group dedicated to supporting the work of civil society organizations to focus on the linkages between military security arrangements and economic groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asian Pacific Economic Community (APEC).

Bello: Unfortunately it is rare. Part of our mission is to increase awareness among NGOs and peoples organizations of the relevance to their concerns of regional military and economic security arrangements.

We also want to give visibility to important problems that governments are simply not address ing. For example, the region’s present military security arrangement rests primarily on a dominant and unilateral U.S. military presence. In the initial postwar decades that presence served to promote the expansion of U.S. trade and investment in Asia. More recently, however, the U.S. military presence has served mainly as a canopy for the rapid integration of the Asia-Pacific region around the economic interests of Japan. Most economists and political scientists align behind the official rhetoric of Washington and Tokyo affirming the “complementary relation ship” of American military strength and Japanese techno-economic power in the region. We see this arrangement as inherently unstable, an assessment underscored by the increasing Japanese dominance of critical military technologies and the fact that it has the third largest military budget of any country in the world.

It is important that we act on the unprecedented opportunity created by relative fluidity of the post-Cold War era of Communist containment to create a new and lasting framework for regional peace and cooperation toward the development of just and sustainable societies. An alternative security framework for the Pacific would rest on a simple idea: that the best guarantee of real security is the rapid demilitarization and denuclearization of the region. Our suggestion for an alternative approach to economic security would feature regional agreements that move the region away from the current dependence on Japan and the United States for imports, exports, capital and technology. Alternative agreements might welcome United States and Japanese trade and investments, but would not extend to them the same preferential trading, investment, and technology sharing arrangements as enjoyed by other less dominant members. The goal would be a pattern of balanced, integrated, ecologically sustainable development for the region in contrast to the present pattern in which the regional economy is organized primarily around the needs of U.S. and Japanese corporations for easy access to the region’s cheap labor and resources.

Korten: How have you organized to address such complex regional issues in a way that links to the concerns of civil society organizations?

Bello: So far we are working with eight researchers from throughout the region. Beyond solid professional qualifications, we look specifically for people who fulfill three criteria: 1) they bring together a diversity of local and national experience; 2) they are not too narrowly focused on a particular country; and 3) they are interested in examining the links between regional and global interests and between economic and military security.

Much of the creative initiative toward developing such models must come from civil society. Helping civil society bring such models into being is an important role of Focus on the Global South. To this end we have been making suggestions to both NGOs and governments regarding alternative possibilities for regional cooperation. We do this mainly through our participation in regional civil society conferences, many of which are held in conjunction with official regional meetings. For example, we will be sponsoring a regional conference in March on Alternative Security Systems for the region.

Earlier this year we organized an NGO conference in Bangkok in parallel with the Asia Europe Economic Leaders Meeting (ASEM). ASEM was initiated by European nations that did not want to be left out of Asia by the APEC initiative. We opposed any move to create an Asian-European free trade area and urged that strengthened cooperation between Asian and European countries should feature strong involvement by civil society.

It is much the same as our position on APEC. We participated in the Manila People’s Forum on APEC and have been working with NGOs in a number of countries to help them understand APEC’s implications. We oppose any effort to make APEC a free trade area, which of course is the driving agenda behind it. Our recommendations are that APEC should be a purely consulta tive body.

Korten: As you know, Nicky Perlas and a number of the mainstream NGO coalitions in the Philippines believe that APEC can be reoriented to focus on sustainable development. I gather you are not so optimistic.

Bello: Changing the focus to sustainable development would move trade way down the list. Then one would need to address the question of what APEC would actually do. One possibility would be to gradually raise labor and environmental standards and wage rates in the Asia Pacific with a lot of flexibility and sensitivity to the special needs of poorer countries. When we start talking about the environment and labor standards we are outside the realm of ASEM and APEC. The United States would not be the only country that would oppose it.

Furthermore, both are purely governmental initiatives with little scope for citizen input. I’m not optimistic about prospects of converting them to citizen led initiatives for sustainable develop ment.

Korten: I’m curious about your decision to divide yourself between Thailand and the Philippines.

Bello: It comes down to two fairly practical considerations. First, we made a studied decision to locate Focus on Global South in Bangkok. We see ourselves as one of a number of policy groups working to find alternatives to the dominant political and economic paradigm. We devote roughly 70 percent of our attention to the Asia-Pacific region and 30 percent to issues of the global south that now extends into the geographical north. We are more concerned with long- term trends and cross cutting issues that extend across national borders than with individual countries. Many of the issues relate to the power relations involved in the emergence of a global north and a global south. We needed a place with good communications infrastructure and a reasonably open political environment. Eliminating the Philippines as too provincial and U.S. centered we settled on Bangkok.

At the same time, the Philippines is my real home and I want to maintain an organic link. There is no better way to understand a place than to be in constant contact with what young people are thinking. Being at a university also allows me to make some interventions in the political and economic policy discussion in the Philippines. I believe that to be effective in regional work it is necessary to be rooted in specific local political and economic realities. All the better to be rooted in two different realities.

Korten: What do you see as future priorities?

Bello: First we need to move beyond primarily defensive postures to taking the initiative in putting forward positive proposals. The substance of our research focuses on three particular challenges. How do we move: 1) from limited forms of liberal representative democracy to more substantive forms of participatory democracy; 2) from economic models focused on export-led industrialization to more sustainable models of development that center on the needs of people and a healthy environment; and 3) from the unilateral use of national economic and military power as the basis of national security to a mutual security based on institutionalized multilateralism. We see participatory democracy, sustainable development, and multilateralism as the foundations of an integrated approach to improving the lives of people in the region.

I think events in the region are moving toward an interesting conjunction. Some countries in the region that have enjoyed economic success have not yet moved from authoritarian to democratic regimes. Others like the Philippines and Thailand both have formally democratic parliamentary governments, but have failed to address the basic economic needs of most of their people. We are left with the need to find a model that combines respect for human rights with the ability to deliver on demands for economic justice. We seek a model that is more democratic on the political side while avoiding the social inequality, and environmental degradation of both the state-led newly industrializing country (NIC) and the corporate led free-market models on the economic side. We want to find a third way that combines roles for the market and the state while relying on the democratic participation of communities as the central engine of decision making.

I believe trade will continue to be an essential dimension of international relations, but with the key decision made by the communities involved to serve community interests. We are talking about the possibility of communities negotiating trading contracts directly with one another. Rather than free trade, our goal should be fair trade, which takes full account of the social and environmental costs of the goods traded. I’m not yet clear on the details of how this might work, but the need to move more economic control to communities is inescapable. This will be accomplished in part by increasing self-reliance in producing locally those things that local people need—which will likely reduce total trade. It would mean applying the concept of subsidiarity to economics—producing as close as possible to the point of consumption.

When goods are traded over large distances the human link between producers and consumers is broken. We need to re-establish this link.

We also believe it is time to take a wholly new approach to regional and global cooperation. Our favored approach is one in which civil society organizations take the lead in organizing forums on economics and security and invite government and business to participate on terms decided by the citizens whose interests they are supposed to serve.


Walden Bello is a contributing editor of the PCDForum and Co-Director, Focus on the South, c/o CUSRI, Wisit Prachuabmoh Bldg, Chulalongkorn University, Phyathai Rd., Bangkok 10330 Thailand, Phone (66-2)-218-7363 or 64; Fax (66-2) 255-9976;  Web site: http://focusweb.org/

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